Tools of the Trade (Graphic Design)
THIS ARTICLE IS UPDATED AS OF AUGUST 2021
As a graphic designer, it’s important to have the right tools in order to create the best work for your clients. While the Adobe is the industry standard for creative professionals, there are many open source software that are not only free to use, but also perform the same tasks just as well — if not better. In addition, as a freelancer Adobe isn’t a must, so you get to decide what tools you want to use. In fact, I have been using open-source software like GIMP and Inkscape for almost all of my projects, with no major issues so far.
Here I’ll introduce the Adobe Creative Cloud, as well as some of the best open source alternatives that you can consider.
As mentioned earlier Adobe is the industry standard for the professional graphic designer, offering the world’s best creative apps. Most people are probably familiar with Photoshop and Illustrator since they are two of the most popular Adobe products.
But quality comes at a cost — the Adobe products are a subscription-based, meaning that you have pay a monthly fee for each individual product. So if you were to get 2 apps, that amounts to around $40 a month. There is also a relatively more cost-effective plan called Creative Cloud, which bundles together around 20 of the most widely used apps like Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign for around $50 a month.
If you are just starting out as a graphic designer, consider getting Photoshop for image manipulation and Illustrator to create vector graphics. However, that would cost you around $60 a month even if you get the Creative Cloud plan, which may not be the most affordable for you. Does that mean you give up your dream of becoming a graphic designer? Absolutely not. Let’s take a look at some of the open source alternatives you can use instead of the Adobe products.
✱ An open source software contains code that can be access and modified by anyone. Such projects promote collaboration and sharing. As such, they are usually free to use, with software-specific add-ons available to personalize your user experience.
FOR IMAGE MANIPULATION
The GNU Image Manipulation Program (or GIMP for short) is a decent alternative to Photoshop. It has been around for 25 years, with new and improved features being added with each build. You can further enhance your productivity thanks to many customization options and 3rd party plugins. I have been using GIMP for most of my work with pretty good results.
Paint.NET is image and photo editing software that features an intuitive and innovative user interface with support for layers, unlimited undo, special effects, and a wide variety of useful and powerful tools. It started development as an undergraduate college senior design project mentored by Microsoft, and has grown into a powerful yet simple image and photo editor tool.
FOR VECTOR GRAPHICS
As a graphic designer, you need a program capable of creating vector graphics. If you don’t have Illustrator, then I highly recommend Inkscape. It’s a free, open source software with many features similar to Illustrator. I have been using Inkscape for most of my projects and it has served me very well so far.
✱ Vector graphics use mathematical equations to draw out lines and shapes, which can be scaled to any size without sacrificing image quality as well as maintain a small file size.
As a graphic designer, part of your workflow involves sketching out ideas and concepts for a design. You can use the traditional method of pencil and paper to create your sketches, but oftentimes you will have to present them to your client, which might be an issue if you are working remotely. Of course, there are workarounds such as a scanner or camera, but it will get tedious after a while.
In my case, I decided to go with a graphics tablet. It is a hardware input device that allows you to draw digitally using a stylus. You will need practice to get used to drawing on a computer screen, but it will be worth it in the long run, especially if you are looking to venture into illustration later on.
✱ The reason I included a graphics tablet here is that you will need it in order to make use of the open source software for sketching, which I will introduce below.
Wacom is the most popular brand for graphics tablets. There are others on the market, but you might run into driver and pen problems (as reported by some users). For those on a tight budget, you might want to consider a refurbished tablet, which costs much less and works just as well for sketching.
Now that you have a graphics tablet, you need a drawing software to produce and display sketches on screen. For that, I strongly recommend MyPaint. It’s open source, easy to use, and has a simple interface, so you will be drawing digitally in no time. However, MyPaint’s main draw (no pun intended) is definitely its unlimited canvas, which allows you to sketch as much as you want on just a single canvas. Very convenient when you have to come up with multiple concepts for a client.
You will need most of the tools listed above to work online as a freelance graphic designer. Fortunately, getting them is as easy as a click of the mouse, and the best part — you probably won’t be spending a dime. So what are you waiting for?